Medical majors are not only the subjects you choose in your undergrad to prepare for medical school. We’ll talk a little about those premed majors, but we are also going to talk about “medical majors” or medical specialties you can pursue as an aspiring doctor. Figuring out is an essential part of medical school. The specialty or field you choose determines where you’ll do your residency, where you’ll practice and what you will spend the rest of your career doing, so you have to make sure you choose the right one. Every medical student chooses a specialty based on their own preferences and interests, but there are a lot of things to consider, which we’ll talk about here. There are over 160 different medical specialties in the US (40 in Canada) and this article will give your insight on how to choose your medical major, describe what kind of training you receive and give you steps on how to secure your spot in your medical major of choice.
Here's the list of the most popular undergraduate premed medical majors
- Biological Sciences
- Social Sciences
- Math and Statistics
- Health Sciences
- Physical Sciences
If you’re still in high school, wondering how to go , or university, and you’re only now thinking about how to become a doctor, then you are probably considering what medical specialty you want to choose. Many people don’t commit to a medical specialty until they get to medical school because they know more about all the different specialties available only in medical school.
However, you should also remember that you don’t have to choose an undergraduate major based on what you think medical schools require. There is no or that requires a specific medical major. Of course, they do have that you have to meet. But you can complete all the prerequisites for your program whatever bachelor’s degree subject you choose, regardless of whether it is in biological sciences, the humanities, or social sciences. You just have to make sure you understand what exactly the prerequisites are for your program, as simply completing your bachelor’s degree is not the same as meeting all the prerequisites.
In fact, only 50% of all medical school applicants in the US majored in biological sciences, but what about the other half? The other half were students from a combination of different majors, as you can see from the list above. What’s more, students with bachelor’s degrees in the humanities and social sciences had similar and overall GPA averages as students with degrees in the biological or physical sciences.
So, if you’re thinking about going to medical school, don’t think you need to have a specific premed major. You should choose a subject that genuinely interests you, which will translate to getting better grades and improving your chances of getting in medical school overall. Choosing a premed major based on what you think medical schools want and not what you want will make your four years frustrating and unfulfilling.
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List of the Most Popular Medical Majors in the US (based on number of active physicians)
- Internal Medicine
- Family Medicine
- Obstetrics and Gynecology
- Radiology or Diagnostic Radiology
List of the Most Popular Medical Majors in Canada (based on number of practicing physicians)
- General or Family Medicine
- Emergency Medicine
- General Pathology
- Cardiothoracic Surgery
- Occupational Medicine
Let’s jump a few years into the future and imagine that you’re in your first, second or third year of medical school and the time to choose your medical major is approaching. There is no set time when a medical student must choose a specialty, but during your final years in medical school, you’ll have to start figuring out and you definitely want to know what specialty you want to enter by then.
Here, we’ll go through each of the prominent medical majors and give you the best ways to prepare for that particular field. But we’ll also detail what kind of training you need and what each medical major entails, especially during your residency and afterward, during your career.
1. Internal Medicine
Internal medicine doctors practice internal medicine. They are also known as internists or general internists. They are highly involved in primary care, but they are not family doctors. Internists do not usually treat children, which family doctors and pediatricians do, so general internists are concerned mostly with adult disease and illness. If you want to become an internist you do not have to go beyond an after medical school, which typically last only three years, depending on the program and whether you decide to pursue certification in a sub-specialty. If you want to treat a wide variety of illnesses and practice in various healthcare environments (hospitals; hospice care; rehabilitation centers; urgent care clinics) you should choose internal medicine, which will expose you to the widest variety of cases.
2. Family Medicine
What puts the “family” in family medicine is that you don’t treat a particular organ or system of the body; you treat individual members of a family or community for the betterment of all. As a family doctor, you have to be a versatile caregiver, as you’ll encounter patients of all ages with any manner of illness or condition. But, unlike other medical majors, you’ll also spend more time with patients, and, in many cases, develop life-long relationships with people, which is something that requires a completely different skill-set than someone who wants to be a surgeon or radiologist, such as communication and interpersonal skills.
But the reason that family medicine continues to be the most popular medical major for medical graduates to enter is because it is the specialty that often requires the least amount of training, compared to others. If you’re thinking about , it can take anywhere between six to seven years to become a family doctor, compared to eight or nine years to become a surgeon so it is one of the .
This shorter length of time is because a family doctor does not need to have specialized knowledge of one discipline, but must have broad knowledge of the entire spectrum of disease and health promotion. If you want to enter a after medical school, you should seek out medical schools that have implemented patient-centered care into the curricula. Patient-centered care borrows heavily from the principles of family medicine in that it advocates for treating patients according to their individual needs, and background, while making them and their families integral parts of any treatment plan through consultation and collaboration.
Pediatrics is a popular medical major for a variety of reasons. But whatever draws you to the field of pediatrics, you should know that it is a very long road to becoming one. It can take anywhere between eight to ten years to become a pediatrician. You take the usual route of undergraduate-medical school-residency, but there are many different specialties within pediatrics that you can also explore, such as pediatric emergency medicine, pediatric or adolescent psychiatry or pediatric neurology.
One thing you’ll learn in a is that pediatrics, similar to family or internal medicine, is a patient-facing medical major, so you need to have the communication skills, patience and compassion to be able to help your patients understand what’s happening to them. However, you can develop a better understanding of the demands of being a pediatrician even before medical school. Shadowing a physician is crucial to getting a first-hand look of what it takes to be any type of doctor, so you should find out .
Shadowing a pediatrician can be especially illuminating, as it is so patient-centered. While it can also help you get , seeing how an experienced pediatrician interacts, and supports their patients is something that will help you decide whether you have what it takes to do the same. But it will not always be pleasant. There are as many lows as there are highs in pediatrics, but if you understand that early, you will have a better idea of , where you will get an even more unvarnished view of the realities of pediatric medicine.
4. Obstetrics and Gynecology
Being an OB/GYN combines several different physician roles from clinician and patient advocate to researcher and surgeon. One way to become an obstetrician or gynecologist is to first become an internist through a three-year internal medicine residency and then complete an additional four- or five-year . But the other pathway is to enter a categorical residency right out of medical school, which is typically five-years for obstetrics and gynecology. This means that if you’re worried about you should try another field. But if you are passionate about female reproductive health then the length of time it takes to be an OB/GYN shouldn’t concern you.
However, OB/GYN is not always a required rotation during medical school, so if you find a curriculum that doesn’t offer it, try looking for a curriculum that does. During your clerkship years in medical school, you can also choose to fill your elective schedule with OB/GYN rotations.
Joining a professional OB/GYN society or association as a medical student is also useful. You can use the resources and mentorship opportunities these societies provide for people like you who want to enter the specialty to learn more about it. Shadowing is also an option. You can get a better understanding of the day-to-day life of an OB/GYN physician, as it is a field that presents as much variety and complexity as any of the other medical majors on this list.
Psychiatry is a medical major that cares for the body as well as the mind. Psychiatrists are medical doctors who specialize in diagnosing and treating chronic mental illness, from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to more severe and complicated illnesses such as schizophrenia or behavioral disorders.
Psychiatry is another medical major where you can get an early glimpse into what it takes to become a psychiatrist. Not necessarily through shadowing, but through volunteering with an organization that provides care and support to those living with mental illnesses or working at a mental health care facility.
Fortunately, psychiatry is a universally-required rotation in medical school, so you will have the chance to get a deeper understanding of the intricacies that go into treating patients with interconnected issues, such as substance abuse, and neurodivergent disorders, through a variety of ways from pharmacological to psychological and behavioral therapies. After medical school you have to do a four- to five-year to be certified by your local, regional or national board of psychiatry. But there are various sub-specialties within psychiatry as well, including child or adolescent psychiatry, addiction medicine, or
However, people skills are as important to learn as medical science. Learning how to listen and how to analyze what people are telling you is key to understanding how best to treat them. Psychiatry is also a field where having a broad knowledge of non-medical subjects (history, social science, humanities, etc.) can be helpful in making you a better, culturally competent and well-rounded psychiatrist. It is one of the best medical majors to enter if you are wondering .
Radiology is a wide-ranging specialty that requires as much education and training as any of the other medical majors. If you’re technologically-inclined and have a more analytical mind than most, you might be interested by the patience, thoroughness and discipline required to be an excellent radiologist. Unlike most of these other medical majors, radiologists do not spend a lot of time with patients.
Instead, they are usually reading and analyzing diagnostic imagery ordered by other primary care physicians. But radiologists also have a role in other areas of medicine. They play an important role in diagnosing all kinds of medical conditions in various settings through x-rays, computer tomography (CT) scans, ultrasounds, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Given all the technology and science involved in radiology, it is usually the medical major best suited to people who come from physics or engineering backgrounds.
You can shadow a radiologist before medical school, but it is not always offered as a core rotation during your clerkship year. That means you have to pursue radiology electives, or any sub-specialties in nuclear medicine, diagnostic radiology or interventional radiology where you have a more direct connection to patient care. A can last for anywhere between four to five years, but many choose to pursue a afterwards since it’s a constantly evolving specialty.
1. Start Thinking about a Medical Major Early
There is no set timeline to choosing a medical major, but you should neither rush nor delay your choice. Ideally, you should go into your clerkship years in medical school with an idea of what you want to do. Then, during your rotations, you’ll see for yourself how hard, demanding, satisfying, or appealing a medical major can be. You might change your mind or confirm that you want to pursue your original choice. If you have decided on your specialty in your pre-clerkship years – which is rare, as only 27% of medical students continue with a medical major they chose in the beginning of medical school – you can start getting more extracurricular experience in your field, talk to specialists in that particular field to find the right residency program or investigate more about the various sub-specialties within that field.
2. Play to Your Strengths
We talked about how some medical majors are better suited to people with certain skills or interests, and you should figure out early which medical major suits your personality, strengths and interests. This is not only to make things easier for you when choosing a medical major; it just makes sense. Like with choosing an undergraduate degree or , you should choose something that you are genuinely interested in pursuing. It’s hard to excel in a field you’re lukewarm about, so why waste the time and effort? But doing something you are truly interested will yield other results, such as impressive transcripts, glowing residency letters of recommendation, and an excellent Medical Student Performance Evaluation (), which is a requirement to get into any residency program.
3. Think in the Long-Term
There is myriad of pressures associated with being a medical student. Rising , and figuring out 10- or 12-hour rotations; endless studying; preparing for exams. While all this may take a toll on you, don’t let it cloud the fact that you should choose a medical major based on what will bring you the most satisfaction throughout your life, and not a way for . Incurring medical school debt is an unavoidable part of going to medical school. It is something you need to address but, again, choosing a “profitable” or high-paying medical major is not the way to do it. You should instead focus on a medical major that will keep your interest for the rest of your career and not something to help get you out of a financial hole.
4. Decide How Involved You want to be With Patients
We talked a lot about “patient-facing” medical majors and “patient-centered care”, which are important things to consider when choosing a medical major. You can choose from being highly-involved in your patient’s lives and care to having a more investigative, analytical, behind-the-scenes role, where you analyze test results, figure out treatment plans and consult with other physicians about a patient’s care. We listed medical majors at both ends of the spectrum and some that are in the middle. Medical schools try to introduce you to direct-patient experience as early as possible so you can develop the skills you need to interact with them professionally, knowledgeably and compassionately. But if, even after these experiences, you feel that patient interaction is not your strong suit, then you should choose something that is not as patient-facing as other medical majors.
Choosing the right medical major is a long, thoughtful process that can take years, but it is worth putting in the time and effort. If you haven’t already decided, you should take every opportunity in medical school to find out more about all the medical specialties, which is what clinical rotations were designed to do. You can also choose to pursue extracurriculars and in various specialties so you can get the best possible perspective on what your future as a physician should be.
1. When should I choose a medical major?
According to the AAMC, many medical students decide on a medical major because of something they experienced during medical school, whether it is in the pre-clerkship or clerkship years. But you should try to do as much preliminary research and planning before you enter medical school. When you’re in medical school, you can then start exploring as much as possible about particular specialties and finding out what you like and don’t like about them and then choose a major preferably before your final two years of medical school.
2. What should I look for in a medical major?
You should look for a medical major that satisfies you both intellectually and personally. The more you research about all the different medical majors, the more you’ll understand what aspects of it you appreciate and which you don’t. For example, many pediatricians decided on pediatrics because of their fond memories of their own pediatrician. Others
3. What if I can’t decide on a medical major?
It isn’t uncommon for medical students to be stymied when it comes to choosing a medical major. But if you truly cannot decide on a medical major before residency, you should not feel the pressure to choose one before you graduate from medical school. You can always take a to bolster your application through getting more clinical experiences, or trying to improve your or Step 2 scores. Maybe after a year of trying out other specialties, you can finally find one that suits you. However, a gap year can also be detrimental, if you don’t utilize the time correctly, so be sure you have a plan to use the time effectively or you can have an even harder time matching to a program.
4. What medical major pays the most as a long-term career?
The medical majors that pay the most are usually the ones that require the most amount of training, or longer residencies. These tend to be medical majors in surgery, such as vascular, orthopedic surgery, or highly-specialized specialties such as ophthalmology which can top out at $500,000 to $800,000.
5. What do I need to get into my preferred medical major?
Getting into a medical major that appeals to you, whether pediatrics or OB/GYN requires a lot. When preparing your application, you need to submit an excellent that takes several drafts to perfect. You also need to get letters of recommendation from people who will back you 100%. Not all residency programs will have minimum USMLE scores, but some do. Either way, you need to put as much study time as possible for getting an USMLE score above 220 or 230.
6. What can I do to improve my chances of getting into my medical major?
You should start as soon as possible to gain the experience from doing several different extracurriculars, talking to practicing physicians in their field, and exploring the resources offered by the professional societies that regulate and certify each new specialist in their field. This way you can have a more focused approach to preparing your residency application materials from writing your personal statement to refining your residency interview answers.
7. Why do so many people choose family and internal medicine as their medical major?
Family and internal medicine are unique medical majors and people decide on them for a variety of reasons. One of them is the need for primary care physicians. Another is the fact that a majority of people usually require only primary care, not secondary or tertiary care from specialists, unless they have a serious condition. One more reason is that family and internal medicine are the medical major that require the least amount of residency training (about three years) so they are popular for those who want to start practicing medicine right away.
8. How should I decide on a medical major?
You have to do as much research into medical majors that interest you the most. If none of them interest you right away, you should choose ones that speak to you for the type and length of training they require, or the various sub-specialties attached to it that may hold your interest more. But most important of all is that you should decide on something that speaks to you personally and what you want to accomplish as a medical doctor.